Anyone who was been reading this blog for a while, while know that I got into English teaching through my good friend James Hendicott. Since we were teaching English together in Korea, he has been a successful travel writer and has written many articles for countless publications. I was lucky enough to be interviewed by him for an article about English teaching for a popular travel website - Travbuddy. Not only can you learn valuable information about any country that you are thinking of traveling to, but there are interesting travel articles for general information. Visit www.travbuddy.com/blog.
Here are some things I think you should consider if you are contemplating teaching English in Asia.
How do you get into English teaching? What qualifications do you need?
I got into teaching because a close friend of mine was already teaching in Korea. He was writing a blog about his experiences and I was jealous of him. I spoke with him about the possibility of coming over and joining him as I found my job in finance dull and tedious. After that, he gave me the contact details of the company he was working for and I emailed the HR department and after sending them my CV, application and passing the phone interview I was offered a job.
In terms of Qualifications, I just needed a BA Degree (in any subject). However, the EFL market is now much more competitive, even in the 3 years I've been teaching. Now, most schools require you to have an English teaching qualification such as TESOL or CELTA. For many countries in Asia, they require you to have a BA degree to get a work VISA but I'm not sure about Europe or South America. Other qualifications vary from school to school.
What are the best and worst sides of the lifestyle that it brings?
The worst side is usually the working hours. Most EFL jobs in Asia require you to work very odd shifts. For instance, in Korea, if you work for a privately run school for adults, you will generally have class before people start work (6-8am), during their lunch breaks (noon-1pm) and after they finish work (6-10pm). These splits can be difficult to deal with as burning the candle at both ends isn't the easiest thing to do over a prolonged period of time. In Vietnam a lot of jobs require you to work 6 days a week. This makes traveling difficult as you don't usually get 2 days off in a row. Of course some jobs have really good schedules and give you the weekends off, but in my experience the minority of people enjoy that here.
Any tips for those looking to get into the job?
The most important thing you should do is think about whether you have the ideal personality for the job. You must be flexible in terms of the hours that you hours that you work, patient when explaining language to students as they often don't understand things that you perceive to do really easy and be willing to embrace a new culture.
How much time do you have to travel?
There isn't really a lot of time to travel. People tend to think that we just work for a couple of hours and then have endless amounts of free time to explore, but this isn't the case. In Asia, companies don't allow you to take so much holiday time (maybe 10 days a year would be standard) and with working 6 days a week, it's difficult to travel. However, rather than visiting many different places, I've really managed to learn an awful lot about the cultures I've been exposed to. I lived in Seoul for 1 year and I've now been in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for 2 years and I think I've learned so much about the food, the life style, relationships and social etiquette that I would never have been able to do if I was only here for a week! After a year, the city you are in really starts to feel like home and you consider yourself a local which is much better than just passing through a place.
What advice would you give a first time teacher?
Two things that I've found useful, though not everyone would agree with me, is to be honest with your students and to lose your inhibitions in the classroom. Firstly, if you're not sure on a grammar point or spelling, check it or take a note of it and tell them in the next class. I don't believe it makes you lose face, and I think you gain respect for it. Obviously you shouldn't do this too often, but English grammar is very complex so don't be ashamed if you don't know the difference between how we use 'while' or 'during'. Secondly, don't be scared to make a fool of yourself in front of your students. When I explain new vocabulary, I'll often mime or fall dramatically to the floor to show the meaning of new words. It will make them laugh and they are probably more likely to remember it! Other than that, when you start, careful planning is a must and try to predict problems that the students might have are. The best way to do this is ask teachers who have been in that country for some time as typical problems vary from country to country.
Tell us about your best and worst moments on the job since you started...
My best moments have been in the relationships I've built with my students. I've always taught adults and I now have friendships that are incredibly strong. Some schools may disallow this, but I often go for dinner or class parties (usually ending up at karaoke bars) and these are the memories that stand out the most for me. Other than that, just helping students to achieve a goal is an incredible feeling. Take this, I recently received an email from a former student telling me they had been accepted onto an MBA programme in the US and they thanked me for my help in their interview preparation. You can really make a difference to someone's future with study, promotion or just developing their confidence when speaking to foreigners.
My worst moment was in first ever class. In walked in all prepared, and stood in front of the class (a group of 7 business students). Unfortunately I lost the ability to speak! I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I just stood there. I looked at my notes, and spoke so quickly that the students couldn't understand me. After 2 minutes, I excused myself and gathered my thoughts. I tried to find my manager but he'd gone home so I went back into the class. Then the students said 'Mark, are you ok?'. 'No, this is my first class, and I don't know what I'm doing' I blurted out. After that they just laughed, told me to relax and we chatted for half an hour about their reasons for studying and why I had come to Korea. Then, with confidence restored, I taught the remainder of the class. At its conclusion, the students told me they'd had a good time and they all came back the next time without complaining or mentioning the incident to my manager!
Do you suffer and difficulties resulting from working in a different culture to your own? How do you deal with them?
Cultural differences manifest themselves in many ways. One of the biggest problems I've faced have been from pet hates of mine. For example, I'm currently teaching in Vietnam where people don't queue. It's survival of the fittest and you just push your way to the front. I really dislike this and it annoys me more than I think it should! Another one is that Vietnamese time is about 30 minutes later than ours. When I arrive to meet people for a beer or coffee at 6, I expect them to arrive at 6:05 by the latest but in VN, you'll often be waiting 20 minutes for them to proudly announce they're on time! It's a touch irritating at times but you just learn to live with it. Other problems include things you miss from home. In particular, I miss good English Tea and desserts which are extremely difficult to find here. The only way around it is to either substitute the things you miss with the next best alternative, or just over indulge it your cravings when you find them!
However, I think the biggest problems can come in terms of relationships. If you end up falling in love overseas, especially in Asia, you need to be careful of different expectations and the nature of family. For example, relationships are expected to end in marriage. There's not so much of 'let's see where it goes'. Also, what the parents say goes. If the parents don't like you, then it's likely your new girlfriend will finish with you. This could be anytime in the relationship. Of course, this would be very difficult to deal with so stay cautious.
There's no magic button or solution to cultural problems though. You just learn to accept them and adapt to them. This is why having the right personal qualities is really necessary. If you can't adapt to your environment you'll have a miserable time. If you're worried about it, I'd suggest start teaching somewhere closer to home, in a culture more similar to your own. If you can successfully adapt then try moving further afield. Just come with an open mind, remember you need to adapt to your surroundings, not the other way round!
What kind of cultural insight can you get from teaching?
A lot! The answers students give you are incredibly honest! This is probably because their language often isn't good enough to be more diplomatic and they are just trying to get their point across. A good illustration is when I asked a student to describe me and they said 'short and fat'. Nice! You just have to laugh and not take it personally. Other things you learn are what it's acceptable to ask people on a first meeting. For example, in Korea, many students would say 'Are you married?' and when you reply 'No, they say 'Why?'. Now, this wouldn't be acceptable in the UK as it breaks social rules but you quickly learn that there are not many questions you won't be asked from your relationship status to your salary. You also learn about interaction between people. For example, if there is a class with a manager and employee, you quickly learn that the manager (or student in the more senior position) will dominate and the employee will wait to speak until his/her manger has finished. Of course there are many things you can learn but these stand out to me.
If a traveler would like to become an English teacher, how would you suggest they go about it?
I suggest speaking to someone who is already teaching in the country your thinking of going to. They will be able to tell you about their experience and what qualifications (if any) you need to get a decent job there. I would recommend doing CELTA or an equivalent to gain some experience and to open doors. Also, if you have friends who are teaching, ask them if you can go to one of their classes to see what they do. You can gain a valuable insight into their methodologies and rapport with their students. For me, taking my first job where a close friend was working made the settling in process much quicker and I felt more comfortable than I would have otherwise!